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.



Sermon: Sunday, July 28, 2013: Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts:  Hosea 1:2-10  +  Psalm 85  +  Colossians 2:6-15  +  Luke 11:1-13

Preaching last week on God’s wrath, I named a couple of ways that most of us dodge the discomfort of dealing with divine anger — by defending ourselves as mostly good, or by declaring that most of us (though not all) are good.  My assertion was that both of these dodges keep us from recognizing the power of anger in the work of love.


Icon of the Prophet Hosea

Well, I have to confess to you, my sisters and brothers, that I’ve been trying to dodge all week long as I prepared for this week’s installment of the “School for Prophets.”  All summer long we’ve been reading and studying the oft-neglected prophetic books from Hebrew scripture, the books that form the backbone of Jewish and Christian ethical reflection on the world, and in their call for personal righteousness and political reform we have heard a good word for our day. But today we move into two weeks with the prophet Hosea, and his language and imagery are so difficult to read, much less to preach on, that I really wanted to dodge the bullet and go back to preaching on the gospels.

This week the gospel of Luke presents Jesus teaching the Lord’s Prayer.  While the spirituality of that prayer is certainly radical in its call for simplicity, forgiveness of debts, and reliance on God; the language is so familiar that it barely registers with us anymore as anything other than a word formula to be recited from memory.

The language of Hosea, on the other hand, is shocking.  So shocking that, in the end, after looking at about five different translations, I ended up softening the language of the text we heard Bob read a few minutes ago out of fear that we’d lose half the room after the first two verses.

The actual, commonly accepted, translation of these verses begins,

When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord. (Hosea 1:2, NRSV)

You can see why I might be tempted to just focus on the Lord’s Prayer.

This ends up being, really, the dominant motif of the prophet Hosea, that Israel has prostituted itself out to foreign nations and other gods.  That Israel has broken the covenant between itself and Yahweh by placing its trust in other powers to give and sustain life.  And as I tried to think about how to preach the prophet Hosea with integrity, the real temptation (other than to simply not preach Hosea) was to excuse the prophet’s misogyny and explain away the rhetoric of violence against women that follows the verses we read this morning.  I wanted to mount a biblical “It Gets Better” campaign by skipping ahead to the brief, rare verses in Hosea that promise reconciliation with God and a new future for the people of Israel.

But to do that, to read these verses out loud in the sanctuary and let the words “whoredom” and “prostitute” ring off the walls of the church, and then skip ahead to some other passage in order to escape the ugliness and cruelty of those words is another kind of dodge that, in the end, does not produce faith but instead sows doubt — doubt that these scriptures are actually trustworthy after all, doubt that we can read and wrestle with difficult texts and come out the other side stronger for having done so.

In her groundbreaking book, “Texts of Terror: Literary – Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives,” biblical scholar Phyllis Trible explores the problem of violence in scripture, particularly the all-too-common violence against women found in scripture.  She names the dodges we too often take in our approach to the problem of violence like this:

From the start, certain theological positions constitute pitfalls.  They center in Christian chauvinism.  First, to account for these stories as relics of a distant, primitive, and inferior past is invalid.  Resoundingly, the evidence of history refutes all claims to the superiority of a Christian era.

Trible already catches me, red-handed, in the act of trying to dodge the problem of the prophet Hosea by explaining his use of misogynistic language like “whoredom” and “prostitute” as if those words are somehow a relic of the past that I would need to explain to you in the context of biblical history; as if they aren’t thrown at women (and men) everyday as insults and forms of social control; as if prostitution isn’t a global industry that creates wealth for men at deep and devastating cost to women.  No, we can’t escape the problem of the prophet Hosea by pretending as if his rhetorical violence is a relic of a biblical past, when we know that it is an all-too-common fact of the present as well.


Trible continues,

Second, to contrast an Old Testament God of wrath with a New Testament God of love is fallacious.  The God of Israel is the God of Jesus, and in both testaments resides tension between divine wrath and divine love.

This is also a move we Christians too often make, to the detriment of our own faith and at the expense of our Jewish sisters and brothers as well.  There is a subtle anti-Judaism that creeps into Christian language when we contrast what we call the Old Testament, which is Hebrew scripture, with the New Testament, as if Christians really only need the later, not the former.  As if the Jesus we meet in the second testament, and the authors who are presenting him, are not quoting frequently and directly from the first testament.

We must learn to say plainly that it simply is not true that the God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath, while the God of the New Testament is a God of love.  God acts again and again in Hebrew scripture, moved by love, to create, save and restore God’s people and God’s creation.  Likewise, the New Testament is filled with language — in the gospels, in Paul’s letters, and elsewhere — that affirms the power of anger in the work of love.  So, no, we cannot dismiss Hosea’s angry, violent language toward his wife and children as “typical” of Hebrew scripture.  If it is typical, it is of something far more universal and encompassing than any one religious tradition.

If we cannot pretend that the issue of violence against women is limited to the ancient past, and we cannot dismiss these verses as diminished Old Testament precursors to a new-and-improved Christian Testament, then how are we to read these passages?  How are we to read the bible as a whole?

Phyllis Trible makes this suggestion:

Offsetting these pitfalls are guides for telling and hearing the tales.  To perceive the Bible as a mirror is one such sign.  If art imitates life, scripture likewise reflects it in both holiness and horror.  Reflections themselves neither mandate nor manufacture change; yet by enabling insight, they may inspire repentance. In other words, sad stories may yield new beginnings.

Honesty and integrity demand that we not gloss over the violence of Hosea’s rhetoric.  We can neither read his message to the nation of Israel, “for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord,” as a relic of the past, nor can we gloss over it and pretend it is not a feature of our own present-day society.

Instead, let’s do this.  Let’s affirm that the women and children, both female and male, used in prostitution are entirely human, equally created in the image of God, deserving of love and compassion,  and worthy of respect.  Let’s not pretend that prostitution is something that only happens to people we don’t know, or is engaged in by people we don’t know.  Given how prevalent it is in our own city, that is simply too unlikely to be true.

What that means in very practical terms is this: in this house, in this church, you are always welcome.  This does not stop being true if you have been prostituted.  This does not stop being true if you are currently engaged in prostitution.  Those are facts that cannot define a person.  Our deepest reality is that we are, each of us, created in the image of a loving God who unrelentingly searches us out so that we can be healed and restored to right relationship with God and with one another.

So I think one of the gifts that can be wrangled out of these explosive verses from Hosea is this: they force us to say words we’ve been taught not to say in polite company.  They hold a mirror up to our society, and they demand that we be clear that the good news of God’s justice-making love is intended for everyone, and by putting us on the record they also insist that we act in ways that make this affirmation true.  I know that, this past Christmas, our social justice committee hosted a holiday shopping party at which all the items being sold supported the work of a Christian ministry advocating for an end to human sex-trafficking.  I’ve been encouraged to see that the Evangelical church in particular has been active in working to shed light on this problem, and to support women and children who are able to leave prostitution and build new futures for themselves and their families.

There is another fact, however, that faces us in the mirror that scripture holds up to us in the words of the prophet Hosea.  I’ve struggled with how to say this, and I’m not entirely sure I’m going to get it right, so I just want to ask for your patience with me as I try to say something I see in these scriptures in the best way I know how, entirely aware that I likely won’t get this right.

As horribly intimate as Hosea is with his imagery — a wife used in prostitution, three children who he names “Jezreel” as a sign of punishment, “Lo-ruhamah” meaning “No Pity,” and “Lo-Ammi” meaning “Not My People” — he is trying to communicate something to the entire nation about their conduct as a people.  He uses his own marriage to a wife who has been prostituted to describe the state of affairs in the relationship between God and Israel, and to his way of thinking God is like a faithful spouse who endures humiliation after humiliation at the hands of a faithless partner.  I’m stripping the genders away from the metaphor, which I understand is a problem since the symbol is so rooted in patriarchy and power, but I’m trying, very imperfectly, to get at what I think Hosea was trying to get at, very imperfectly; and that is that when we talk about politics in church, we’re not talking about some impersonal set of ideas or laws or trade practices — we’re talking about ways of structuring our life together as a community that have deep and profound impact on all of us, as individuals and families, as neighborhoods and nations.

As you read through the entire fourteen chapters of Hosea you discover that what he’s really angry about is the way that Israel has misplaced their trust in the very powers that have previously enslaved them.  He writes, “they call upon Egypt, they go to Assyria,” (Hos. 7:11b) and goes on to say,

You have plowed wickedness, you have reaped injustice, you have eaten the fruit of lies.  Because you have trusted in your power and in the multitude of your warriors, therefore the tumult of war shall rise against your people, and all your fortresses shall be destroyed. (Hos. 10:13-14)

Hosea accuses Israel of being faithless, of abandoning their covenant with God, of seeking power and pleasure from the hands of the very people and places that have always been the source of their oppression.  He indicts them of placing their trust in their military, of using war as a method for getting what they want at the expense of others.

Doesn’t this all sound a little bit too familiar?  Don’t we sense that sometimes our own culture, our own society, keeps turning again and again to powers that we know are broken, systems that we know are hurting us, but which we have decided are “too big to fail.”  Can we imagine that as these systems rob us of our homes and our jobs, as these forces commit us to war after war so that we can maintain control over resources that rightly belong to all God’s people, that God’s wrath — which is God’s anger directed toward the work of love — might be kindled?

The image that Hosea reaches for, the symbol he uses to try and help Israel understand that talking about politics in church is actually talking about the very things that affect us in our homes on a day to day basis, is a symbol of domestic violence.  He uses language that demeans and denigrates his wife and his children, and he goes on to describe the ways they will be punished for their faithlessness that would, and should, get him arrested if he tried them today.

I am not excusing that, but I am trying to understand the message he is trying to deliver as he speaks in such graphic terms on behalf of God to the nation of Israel.  Here is my best attempt to boil that message down to something that does not harm or objectify women and children:

Oh my people, when will you learn that the personal is political and the political is personal?  When will you understand that your chasing after dreams and illusions of pleasure and privilege always come at the expense of someone else, the expense of the very land we rely upon for life?  When will you start living as if the promises we made to one another in baptism mean something to you, and not just to me?  When will you finally treat me, and one another, with the love I have always given to you?

Hosea uses the language of marriage and infidelity, I think, because it is some of the most powerful language we have available to us.  If you have ever had to talk with your lover, your partner, your spouse about infidelity, then you know how scary and painful and explosive those conversations can be.  Hosea draws on those emotions, and our almost universal experience with those emotions, to try and help us understand on a visceral level what is at stake in our relationship with God, not just at home in our private religious lives, but out in the world, in public, in our collective lives.

In many ways, he fails.  His inability to really even see the violence he perpetrates against his wife and children as he tries to make his point to the nation of Israel is a reminder to us all that we must guard against self-righteousness.  Still, I’m glad that our tradition has kept Hosea in the Bible.  His personal failures teach us something about the frailty of our own best efforts, while still demanding that we all be honest about our collective failures before God.