Sermon: Sunday, July 6, 2014: Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Genesis 24:34-38,42-49,58-67  +  Psalm 45:10-17  +  Romans 7:15-25a  +  Matthew 11:16-19,25-30

Illegal-Kids-Cross-US-BorderAn unknown man walks into your hometown and offers to take you away from your family, away from your country, to another land and another group of people. He discusses the offer with your parents, who seem willing to let you go but are willing to leave the decision to you. As you consider the possible futures that lay before you, you parents ask you “will you go with this man?” And, perhaps to your surprise, you hear yourself saying, “I will.”

What would have to be going on in your life, in your world, for such an offer from an unknown person to seem like the wiser course of action? What would it take for you to leave all that you have ever known and set out for a new nation, placing your life in someone else’s hands?

That is the essence of the story we hear from Genesis this morning. Having been tried and tested throughout his long life, Father Abraham has buried his wife, Sarah, and is nearing death. All that God had promised him has come to pass. Called to leave their own homeland behind, Abraham and Sarah have come into the land that was promised to them; they have borne a child, Isaac, against all odds; and now all that remains is for Abraham to be sure that Isaac has a wife so that their family line can continue and God’s promise to make them progenitors of a vast people more numerous than the stars in the sky can be fulfilled.

Having built a new life for himself in this new land, Abraham does not want to return to Haran, the land of his birth, to find Isaac a wife — and he doesn’t want Isaac to return there either. What would be the point of all that they’d sacrificed, all that they’d risked, if their son simply returned to the place they’d come from? At the same time, Abraham doesn’t want Isaac to marry one of the women in Canaan where they have made their home. Like many a first generation immigrant, Abraham is caught between identifying with the land of his birth, and the place he and his wife had come to call home.

So Abraham, who has slowly, finally, come to understand that God’s promises will be kept in God’s time, does what he has learned to do. He makes a plan and takes action, charging his chief servant to return to their homeland to find a wife for Isaac, but allowing that things may or may not turn out as planned. As Abraham sends his servant off on this mission he says,

“See to it that you do not take my son back there. The LORD, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my birth, and who spoke to me and swore to me, ‘To your offspring I will give this land,’ he will send his angel before you, and you shall take a wife for my son from there. But if the woman is not willing to follow you, then you will be free from this oath of mine; only you must not take my son back there.” (Gen. 24:7-8)

There’s something interesting about this story, something that makes it more approachable to ordinary people like you and me: God doesn’t speak. Over the long course of their relationship, God has spoken to Abraham, guiding and directing him. Now, nearing the end of his life, Abraham takes action without knowing precisely what God expects or desires. Standing at the threshold between life and death, having achieved great things but knowing that the future remains uncertain, Abraham does not hear a voice from God instructing him in what to do. Instead, he exercises discernment. He makes a choice, one that is obviously colored by his own experience, perhaps even his own prejudices, but one that also creates an opportunity for a future for his family.

This theme is repeated throughout this story. The servant whom Abraham sent back to Haran comes to a well, and there he offers a prayer, a plea for God’s assistance. He says,

“Oh LORD, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham. I am standing here by the spring of water, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. Let the girl to whom I shall say, ‘Please offer your jar that I may drink,’ and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’ — let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac.” (Gen. 24:12-14)

Faced with a difficult challenge, Abraham’s servant turns to God in prayer and shows signs of discernment. His criteria may, initially, seem odd — a woman who will offer him a drink and water his camels — it’s not the sort of thing we might post in our own online profiles, but it shows that he is looking for a woman who demonstrates evidence of kindness, generosity and hospitality to strangers. These would be markers of a faithful woman who heeded God’s call to show hospitality to strangers, as Abraham and Sarah did when God came to them by the oaks of Mamre (Gen. 18) to announce that they would have a son.

When just such a woman does show up in the form of Rebekah, whose gracious hospitality is almost comic in proportions as she fetches water for not only the servant but his ten thirsty camels as well, God still does not speak. Instead the scriptures say that Abraham’s servant “gazed at her in silence to learn whether or not the LORD had made his journey successful” (Gen. 24:21). Like us, this servant of the LORD relies on prayer and then makes the best decision he can, trusting God to be faithful to God’s promises.

Having done his part, the final discernment is left to Rebekah, a woman whom the author of Genesis goes to great lengths to compare to Abraham himself. Like him, she is called out of their shared homeland, called to leave family and nation behind. Like him she offers hospitality to a stranger, in fulfillment of God’s commands. Like him she is offered a blessing that anticipates the she will become the mother of nations who will inherit a land of their own (Gen. 24:60). But all these things rest on her own decision, freely made, to step into this new reality, which she does — not because she hears the voice of God, but because she discerns something in the servant’s story that rings true, and leads her to step forward in faith.

“Faith,” said Martin Luther, “is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man could stake his life on it a thousand times.” Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace. That is what Abraham finally shows here at the end of his long life. No longer trying to force God’s hand with attempts to engineer his own future by means of his slave, Eliezer, or through his wife’s slave, Hagar; Abraham’s penultimate action is to chart a course forward that demonstrates a living, daring confidence that God will be whom God has been. It is living because it is happening in the present, influencing decision being made in real-time. It is daring because there is something of real value being risked — his family’s future.

This story about the passing of generations has so much to say to us, here, today.  As Abraham and Sarah give way to Isaac and Rebekah, we see how in each generation God’s call sounds remarkably similar, inviting us to leave the security of what we have known behind and to be willing to make big decisions, in the present, risking all that has been hard won, to ensure a future for our families.

Immigration Overload Hot SpotWe see it being played out on the border of our country every day, as young women and men leave their homes in Honduras, in El Salvador, in Mexico to create a new life for themselves in the United States, where others have gone before them fleeing the violence of their homelands. Perhaps no voice other than their own internal wisdom guiding them to step out in faith, with the living, daring confidence that God will guard and guide them to a better life than the one they’ve known.

We are living this faith right here in our own congregation, as the strategic listening team goes out like Abraham’s servant to watch and to listen for signs in the stories each of us is sharing about how this congregation offers welcome in the form of food and water, at the table and the font, and as we feed our neighbors knowing that when we welcome strangers into our homes we welcome God as well. We have received a great inheritance from those who have gone before us. Still, we know that in every generation we are called to demonstrate a living, daring faith in the grace of God — a faith that calls for discernment and decisions in the present moment that involve real risk.

You, too, are facing these decisions in your own lives. Whether you are young or you are old, whether you are raising children or burying spouses, you — like Abraham and Sarah, like Rebekah and Isaac — are living your lives by faith. Grounded in prayer, shaped by a tradition that has formed you for lives of kindness, generosity and hospitality, you meet the challenges of each day listening for the voice of God in the world and in your life. More often than not, however, you are required to exercise what wisdom you have gained by watching and listening for signs of God’s movement in the world without anything so clear as a voice from above.

What allows you to do this? I believe it is confidence in God’s grace. The apostle Paul, plagued by his own fears that his best choices were corruptible, and his own worst inclinations ever-present, nevertheless shows the same living, daring confidence in the grace of God that we see in Abraham, his servant, and Rebekah. He writes, “wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Christ Jesus our Lord!” (Rom. 6:24)

It is this grace that makes light the burdens of the decisions we are called to make each and every day. Like Abraham and Rebekah we are making decisions that will shape the course of our lives, and of the lives of generations to come. Rather than causing us to be timid, the grace of God calls us to be bold — not placing our trust in our own discernment, but in the power of God to work in us and through us for the healing of the nations and the entire world. Or, to quote Luther again,

“God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong [sin boldly!], but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however … are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign.”

Knowing, then, that God is at work in every generation, in me and in you, calling us to leave behind all that we’ve known to forge a new family, created by water shared and promises made, we are faced with the same question posed to Rebekah: “Will you follow this man?”



Sermon: Sunday, June 29, 2014: Third Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Genesis 22:1-14  +  Psalm 13  +  Romans 6:12-23  +  Matthew 10:40-42

"The Sacrifice of Isaac" by Marc Chagall (1966).

“The Sacrifice of Isaac” by Marc Chagall (1966).

We’ve only just begun our summer-long exploration of the book of Genesis, and already we find ourselves at one of the most heart-wrenching stories found anywhere in scripture: the binding of Isaac.

To recap what we’ve heard so far: in the beginning God made the world and everything in it and called it good. We heard this message loud and clear two weeks ago when our sister Judith from South Africa leaned over the edge of this pulpit and reminded us that, unlike the violent creation stories of the conquering nations that surrounded it, Israel’s creation story rooted the world’s origins in an act of divine creativity and love. God spoke the world into being with a word, God breathed life into clay and humanity was formed from the earth. God looked at everything God had made and called it good.

In the 9am Adult Forum we’ve been digging a little deeper into the book of Genesis than we’re able to during worship, so we’ve also read through and discussed the story of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and humanity’s departure from Eden. This morning we looked at the story of the flood, how God used water as a sign of dying to ways of life marked by sin, but saved a remnant of what God had created in love as a sign that we are always being made new. That story ends with God saying to Noah, “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” (Gen. 9:16).

As I heard those words again this year, I immediately thought of the beautiful rainbow banners hanging here in the sanctuary and it struck me how appropriate it might be for us to leave them up throughout the summer as we read through the book of Genesis so that we have a visible reminder of God’s promise to save God’s children because, as we immediately see this morning, the rest of the book of Genesis puts that hope to the test.

The 22nd chapter of Genesis begins, “After these things God tested Abraham.” These opening words aren’t a casual statement. “After these things” is a reminder to the reader and to us that Abraham and Sarah have already been on a long, difficult journey. God called them to leave their family, to leave their country, promising to make of them a great nation.

Already they have faced great difficulties that threatened to rip their marriage and their family apart. They stay a short while in Egypt to escape a famine, where they pose as brother and sister so that Abraham will not be killed by a jealous Pharaoh when he sees Sarah’s beauty. Though they go on to become quite wealthy and build a strong following, they remain childless and struggle to hold on to hope that God will keep God’s promises to them. So they propose to make one of their slaves their heir, so that the family line will be carried on, but God rejects that proposal. Worried that she has become too old to bear children, Sarah encourages Abraham to use another of their slaves, Hagar, as a surrogate. She gives birth to a son, Ishmael.

For a while it seems that God’s promise will be fulfilled through him, through Ishmael. As he grows older, God appears again to Abraham and Sarah to reaffirm God’s promise to them, giving them new names and declaring that Sarah herself will give birth to a son, causing her to laugh in disbelief. But when her first son is born they do believe and they name him Isaac, which means “laughter,” because as Sarah says, “God has brought laughter to me” or “God has brought joy to me” (Gen. 21:1-7).

"Hagar and Ishmael Seeking Water" by Hermine Schäfer (1964).

“Hagar and Ishmael Seeking Water” by Hermine Schäfer (1964).

But joy turns to jealousy and, as we heard from Dan last week, when Sarah sees Ishmael playing with Isaac her heart is hardened against him and she demands that Abraham send them away. God reassures Abraham that Hagar and her child will be cared for, that the promise God made to Abraham and Sarah would extend to Ishmael as well because he, too, is part of their family. As Hagar and Ishmael wander in the wilderness, parched for lack of water, the mother sets him under a bush and waits for him to die. The scripture says, “then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot” (Gen. 21:16). Again, that reference to a bow, and I wondered if Hagar searched the sky for a sign that God intended to save her child as well. If she looked for a rainbow as she sat on cracked, dry land.

All that backstory is summed up in the opening words of this morning’s passage, “after these things,” three words meant to remind us of what has already been an epic story filled with danger and disappointments and dreams deferred. I can’t read those words, “after these things” on the morning that we’ve just baptized Isaiah Erich Swanson, without thinking of all the things that preceded this day for him and for his family, or for me and my family, or for you and your families, or for the family that is all of us together. “After these things…”

If I were to ask you to turn to your neighbor — which I’m not, but just imagine if I did —- and tell that person what “after these things” refers to in your life, the life of your family, what stories would you tell? Through what dangers, toils and snares have you already come? How have those experiences shaped you? Have they brought you closer to God? Have they strained your ability to trust the promises of God?

Look at those rainbow banners hanging on the wall. Remember all the rainbows that have filled your lives. Hanging in the sky. Marching in the street. A sign that God does not abandon God’s children, but brings them through the flood. Now take a deep breath and hold on to your rainbow as we climb the mountain with Abraham and Isaac.

After these things, God says to Abraham “take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” (Gen. 22:2) It’s horrible. It’s such a horrible story. What God would ever command such a thing, and what parent would ever follow such a command?

facebook ad-2Though, even as I ask the question, I’m reminded of a conversation I had with Melissa Lorraine, the Artistic Director of our Artist-in-Residence, Theatre Y, which recently finished its production of the Greek tragedy, Medea, a story about a mother who sacrifices her children as an act of revenge against the husband who has abandoned her. As we talked about what it would mean for the company to stage that play in this neighborhood, at a time in which one of our middle schools is being converted into a military academy, we acknowledged that, in fact, there are many little gods at work in our world, always asking us to sacrifice our children on their altars. The altars of war. The altars of achievement. The altars of jealousy.

Abraham doesn’t even put up a fight. At least with Ishmael the scripture says he was distressed, but in this instance he rises early, saddles his donkey, and packs for the worst day of his life. I know we’re intended to read this as obedience, faithfulness, but for the life of me it just feels like learned helplessness. Which, after these things we have all been through, we can relate to. We see the sacrifices coming. They look terribly unfair. But that’s just the way things are. Everyone goes through it at one point or another. I guess my time has come.

There is a school of thought concerning this story of the binding of Isaac that interprets it very differently.  Instead of seeing this story as a test of Abraham’s willingness to murder his son, as if that was such an extraordinary thing, it sees this story as one of God interrupting an unnecessary sacrifice, which sadly had become too ordinary.

In order for this other explanation to make sense we would need to know that in the ancient world, child sacrifice was not uncommon but instead an accepted form of sacrifice to the gods. Archaeologists have found remains of children that seem to have been sacrificed in a ritualistic manner in Central America, Europe, North Africa and the Arabian peninsula. Many different scriptural traditions, including our own, reference the practice of child sacrifice as though it would be familiar to those reading them. But we struggle to understand how any religion could demand this of a parent, of a family.

Is it really that hard to understand?

In this June 10, 2012 Florida Keys NewsI’ve read so many commentaries that focus on the horror of asking a parent to sacrifice their child, as if no parent would ever do such a thing. But I think, and I don’t mean this to sound cruel, but I think the thing that makes this story truly horrifying is that we know we are already doing it. We are already offering our children up to a system, to so many interlocking systems, laying them on so many different, lesser, altars in the world on which they are dying. The streets. The prisons. More and more, the classrooms filled with guns, little gods that promise to keep us safe as they steal what we love most. Even our churches have sometimes, tragically, called families to sacrifice their children and have called it love, tough and terrible. We are marching today, draped in rainbows, in remembrance that we are God’s children too.

As adults, when we read this story I think we almost automatically identify with Abraham and Sarah. How could he march his son up the mountain? How could she let him take her only beloved son? But I can actually still remember hearing this story as a child, and identifying not with Abraham or Sarah, but with Isaac. I imagined what it would feel like to be carrying the wood of my own sacrifice up to the altar. I remember wondering if my parents could ever do something so terrifying to me, wondering if they were forced to choose between God and me what choice they would make. With the vivid imagination of childhood I could imagine the cords tying me to the altar. I could smell the dry wood stacked around me. I could picture the field of blue above me, as I searched the sky for a sign, any sign, that my life was worth saving. Was there a rainbow in the heavens for me?

That is God’s entry into the story. Breaking into a world that binds children on so many violent altars, that binds parents with so many violent expectations, the story of Abraham and Sarah and their son, Isaac, is not a horror story but the account of one more time in our long history with God when God woke us from the nightmare that had captured us and called us back to consciousness. The God of Abraham, this story says, does not require child sacrifice. Our God does not demand that of us, any of us. Instead, as we hear Jesus telling the disciples this morning, “whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me … and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — truly, I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” (Matt. 10:40,42).

Jesus names children right alongside prophets and the righteous as the ones we are called to welcome into our homes and communities, into our lives, because they vulnerable and because they can change the world. Prophets, who speak the truth, and the righteous who live the truth, are vulnerable because with their words and their actions they challenge the way things are. Children, because they are vulnerable, show us the truth of the ways things are. We are called to welcome them — those who challenge the present order and those who suffer because of it — into our community with something as small as a cup of cold water, or as large as the baptismal flood of that reveals the reality under the ritual, that we are all God’s children.  Whether we were claimed or cast away. Whether we were taken to the altar or carried back down the mountain, there is a rainbow over each one of us, and a God who does not call us to drown or die, but to live and see the world made new, today and every day for the rest of our lives.