Saturday, June 28, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, June 29, 2014 Genesis 22:1-14 “A Voice Unheard”

          We continue in our readings from the Hebrew Bible this morning with another chapter in the story of Abraham, a hard one for us to hear, to be sure. Asking a father to sacrifice his only legitimate son and heir? To kill the one for whom he and his wife had waited so long? 

          It seems incomprehensible that God would ask this.
And as I read the story once again, I’m struck by the one voice that isn’t heard in the story.

We hear all about Abraham and how God told him he must sacrifice his son, the son that he loved, how he went up the mountain, a long trek, the boy’s heart-rending question: "The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering,"  the angel showing up in the nick of time, the ram in the thicket that serves as the offering…

We hear many voices, but one is missing. The obvious one: the mother of this beloved boy Isaac. Sarah, the one who laughed when she heard she would have a son in her old age. The mother of nations.

Silent? Or did she have no idea what was going to happen on that mountain?

The only clues we have are in the aftermath. In the very next chapter, she dies apart from her husband and child, in Canaan. Abraham has to go to the place where she has died and purchase a burial place from the Hittites. She is estranged from her family. Suffice to say, this is not a happy clan and this is most likely not a happy woman. No more laughter now. Was the incident on the mountain a part of that story?

How could it not be? At some point she learns about what happened, and that triggers an estrangement from Abraham, and thereafter, her death.

We don’t hear her voice in the Scriptures, but we can imagine her sharing her story with other women: “After a long life, after a miracle of sorts, I had my beautiful Isaac. My gift of laughter, not because Abraham laughed when God made the promise. Not because I laughed when the strangers said it would happen. Just because he was my joy, my little love.

 “And then Abraham took my little love on a trip. He didn’t tell me about it, except to say that it was what young boys did with their fathers. Just a little camping trip with some of the other young men. He didn’t say this was something that God had insisted upon.

“I learned later that Abraham had taken my boy up a mountain and intended to murder him as a sacrifice required by God. He said that God told him to kill Isaac. God didn’t even use his name, just kill him, like he was a lamb to be sacrificed. A piece of meat to be burnt on the altar. “

Can you imagine the rage that Sarah must have felt? To have no choice, to know nothing of what Abraham was going to do with the most precious thing in her life? What mother wouldn’t be enraged? Is it any wonder that her story ends so?

One of the midrashes on the story of Sarah’s death, a commentary by ancient rabbis on the text, suggests this very conclusion to the story: “At that time, Satan went to Sarah and appeared to her in the guise of Isaac. When she saw him, she said to him: My son, what has your father done to you? He answers her: My father took me up hill and down dale, up to the top of a certain mountain, he built an altar, arranged the wood, bound me ontop of it, he took the knife to slaughter me, and if God had not said, “Don’t stretch out your hand,” I would already have been slaughtered. He did not finish telling the story before she died.” (Tanhuma Vayera 23)

Rabbi Rona Shapiro suggests that Sarah is overcome with a grief so powerful that it kills her, while Abraham seems to carry out God’s orders unflinchingly. But perhaps Sarah dies because she knows the sacrifice is wrong. She knows that God would not ask this. If relationship is the way we know God, why would God destroy relationship? Sarah knows about relationship, but Abraham does not. He has already demonstrated this: he abdicated responsibility vis-à-vis her contentious relationship with Hagar and Ishmael. It takes Abraham’s nearly killing Isaac for him to realize the significance of this son to him.

Shapiro believes that Sarah’s death says that this trip to the mountaintop is unnecessary. There is no truth on the mountain. Truth is right here, at home, cooking dinner, doing the quotidian things. Deuteronomy says “Truth is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart.” (Deut 30:11-14)

Sarah dies knowing the truth that Abraham learns only with her death. He never again talks to God. God never talks to him. Instead, he remarries, fathers more children, lives what appears to be a much more boring life than the one he lived before. With Sarah’s death, he finally realizes that relationship is where one finds the truth that is God.

We wrestle with a text like this, wondering if it is an example of Abraham’s great faith and obedience or yet another example of how Abraham gets it all wrong. Is this a test from God or a time that Abraham misunderstands the instructions? We cannot know for sure, but we can recognize that we human beings sometimes make assumptions about what God wants. If these assumptions do not fit the whole of what God has revealed about Godself, maybe we’re not reading God right. Maybe we are hearing our own egos, our own fears, rather than God’s instructions.

There’s a reason God stays Abraham’s hand. He does not expect Abraham to do this thing. Yes, it might be that Abraham has proved his obedience and God now trusts the patriarch. Or maybe, just maybe, this very human man has once again misread God’s intentions – as we ourselves sometimes do – and it is only through the reaction of his wife, the child’s mother, that he finally realizes how wrong he has been.

And maybe the faith that is shown here is not so much obedience to an outrageous demand by God, but admission that he was wrong, that God would have never expected such a thing, that the boy’s mother was right. She knew. Relationships are where we learn about God’s love, and where truth lives. Not in a knife. Not on a mountain. Not in murder.

No, God’s love and God’s truth are found in life, as ordinary as the supper table. In life, as mundane as a kiss before sleep. In life, as lacking in mountaintop glow as the laundry room in the basement.

God is found in life, not death. Truth is found in relationship, not in homicide. Listen for what God says and test what we think we hear against those statements. Sarah did, as painful as it was. We should, too.     


Saturday, June 21, 2014

Sermon for Sunday, June 22, 2014 ”Priceless”

Four very different texts today, at first glance. One from the Hebrew Bible about Abraham’s illegitimate son with his wife’s servant. One a psalm about how miserable the psalmist is, but he has hope that God will help him. One a letter from Paul to the Romans telling them that they must die to sin in order to live in Christ. And then the Gospel, where Jesus instructs the disciples in their responsibility to preach the Word, no matter what the cost, despite the fact that it will set some people’s teeth on edge.

All over the map, right? Or not?

There is a thread that links them. A spun-gold thread:

God is with us. God can help with the difficult parts of life. God challenges us, but never leaves us without divine assistance.

Feels all warm and fuzzy when I say it that way, right?

There is, however, another thread that links them. That one is not so comforting. Perhaps it is a thorny thread, sort of like barbed wire. Here’s what it tells us: It is often difficult to follow God. We are asked to make hard choices. Our friends and even our families may turn their back on us, or we may need to turn our back on them, for the sake of the Gospel.

Not so warm and fuzzy now, is it?

Let’s start with the Old Testament story. Abraham has been promised that he will father a mighty nation, despite the fact that he and his wife are very old, well past the time of childbearing. When the years pass and the promise does not seem to be fulfilled, his wife suggests that he have a child with her servant, the much younger and presumably fertile Hagar. And as can be predicted, Hagar does have a child, a boy named Ishmael. Equally predictably, things get rather tense between Hagar and Abraham’s wife Sarah after the boy is born. Things get worse when, miraculously, Sarah gives birth to her own son, Isaac. And Hagar is driven out of the household because of this. Abraham consents, because his primary responsibility of care is to his wife Sarah. Hagar was merely a stopgap measure, because Abraham and Sarah feared that the promise God made to Abraham would not come to pass.

God keeps his original promise – there is a boy child, born of Sarah and Abraham. Abraham and Sarah’s faith in God’s promise has been imperfect, and something that was not part of the original plan has occurred – the birth of Ishmael. So something has to happen. Hagar and Ishmael must go.

But are they merely victims here? Bad things, painful things await. Abraham has to send away a son whom he loves. Hagar has to leave the protection of the household. It is a mess. There is no prettier way to say it. But God provides. God offers an alternative to the mess that Abraham and Sarah have gotten themselves into by using Hagar as a surrogate mother. God provides in as gracious a way as he provides for Abraham and Sarah. He offers another promise to Abraham:  “ ‘As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring’… God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow.  He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.”

God is with us in the mess, when we try to follow and fail, when we make mistakes.

And how many times have each of us failed, how many times have we thought that we were not worthy of forgiveness, how many times have we feared that God would abandon us because of our sins?

Perhaps the song of the psalmist is the lament of Hagar, that sense of being abandoned with no hope. Perhaps it is the expression of grief of Abraham, that deep loss of a child whom he loved. Perhaps it is the repentance of Sarah, whose fear and jealousy has probably caused a painful rift with her husband, despite the birth of their son Isaac. But in every psalm of lament there is always a statement of faith that God will come and help in some way, that the one who laments will not be alone forever. How many times have we wondered where God was in our pain, but somehow hoped and prayed that God would show up?

And perhaps that is the hope that Paul offers to the Romans. He reminds them that God showed up, in the form of Jesus Christ, to die so that we might live. Jesus saved us even though we often think we could not possibly be worthy of salvation. Jesus suffered pain as we suffer pain, in a human body, but his pain’s purpose was clear – to reconnect us to our God, to wash away sin and brokenness, to offer a vision of a state of being that is possible if we simply believe…a vision of eternal joy and peace and wholeness.

How many times have we prayed that there would be something better for us, something beyond the messiness of our lives, beyond the sense of isolation, of losing our way? How many times have we reached deep to find hope again, the same sort of hope that Abraham learned to trust, the same sort of hope that Roman followers of Christ held in their hearts despite the persecution of the Roman empire?

Jesus reminds us in the Gospel that we are given the promise of eternal life, but we are not there yet. There is work to be done, in our own hearts and in the chaotic world around us. If it were all easy work, with no tough choices, that would be nice. But it is not. It is hard work with sometimes unclear choices, but it is worth it.

Four readings from Holy Scripture, seemingly different, but taking us, in the end to the same observations:

  • The cost of following Jesus’s way? High.
  • The price of discipleship? Costly.
  • The work of changing our lives to conform with God’s will? Arduous.

But eternal life? Priceless.


Saturday, June 14, 2014

Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2014 “Get Up and Dance”

This Sunday, the Sunday after Pentecost, is traditionally designated as Trinity Sunday, mostly because Jesus uses the Trinitarian formula of “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” in his final commission to the disciples.

And so each year, when this Sunday comes around, preachers quake in their boots, because the concept of the Trinity is, well, hard to wrap our brains around.

If we find it difficult, we are not alone. A number of heresies of the early church were based upon somebody trying to come up with a clever way to understand the Trinity. Three persons, one God. Equal. Eternal. No one person dominates. They don’t take turns being the boss. They are always there, always one, always equal.

You can see how you’d get into trouble, because there is no perfect earthly metaphor for the Trinity. Yes, St. Patrick tried it with the shamrock. Augustine tried it with the concept of love. But none of those metaphors really capture it.

So humans come up with other ideas, like the three persons have different jobs (creator, redeemer, sustainer). Or that God the Father is the Old Testament God, Jesus Christ is the New Testament God, and the Holy Spirit is the present day God. Or that there is one God, and sometimes God is acting as Father, sometimes, Son and sometimes Holy Spirit. Or that God the Father was around first, all alone, and then Jesus came God’s son, and then Jesus left us the Holy Spirit to keep us on course.  All of these have been named as heresies, or false teachings. What we are told is the right belief is that there is one God, that there are three persons in this one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and this Three-in-One has always been and will always be. Makes my head hurt when I try to understand it.

But our friends the Christians in the Eastern Orthodox tradition take a different route in talking about the Trinity, and I think it is a more helpful and accurate way of understanding, one that is reinforced by our readings from Holy Scripture today.

There’s a Greek word that the Orthodox folks use to describe the Trinity: “perichoresis.” It can be translated as a swirling around, or interwining, one in and out of the other, and you can even use very technical language like “circuminsession,” which is not the least bit helpful and even sounds a wee bit medical.

But here’s another way of translating it that we can really grab onto: Perichoresis is dancing around together.

Dancing around together.

Here’s a story about dancing together. Several years ago, Doug and I took ballroom dancing lessons. It’s a very short story, because we were not very good, and we quit after the first set of lessons. We were trying to follow all the instructions, so we were busily counting steps and holding our bodies fairly rigidly, and trying to remember which direction we were supposed to go. Now this is the man I was married to. We know each other’s bodies pretty well. But you would have thought, seeing us dance together, that we were strangers, that our bodies didn’t know each other, that we were working to keep ourselves from touching each other except in the prescribed way our teacher taught us. It wasn’t very fun. We weren’t very good. Doing ballroom dancing clearly was not something we were going to be able to accomplish.

Now fast-forward to a couple of years ago, when the two of us went to Ireland. One night there was a little mini-ceili – a dance and music party – in a tiny, smoky cottage on Galway Bay. The musicians were playing like madmen, and we were all dancing around. It was too small to really move more than a few inches in every direction, but we were all sort of hopping joyfully in place. Sometimes it looked like a polka, sometimes a two-step, sometimes more like an epileptic seizure, but it was all okay. Occasionally one or the other of us would go outside, some even dancing out of the cottage door and onto the grass, but mostly we were swirling in that room, an interconnected mass of laughter and music and joy. A very different kind of dancing, one that superseded any rules about dancing – hold your arms this way, move in this direction, one two three one two three, now turn – a kind of dancing that was endlessly variable, surprising, energetic, joyful.

Two very different experiences of dancing. One rigid, slightly scary, rule-bound, difficult in terms of relationship and interaction. The second wild, free, ever-changing and creative, intermingling, inter-relating, fun.

One of these is perichoresis – that swirling about in relationship between the three persons of the one God – and one is not. Which one to you think it is?

If you guessed the second one, you’d be right. That dance of relationship between the three persons of the Trinity is not a strictly defined ballroom tango, where every movement is preordained. It is infinitely variable, and it is about relationship. Relationship between the persons of the One God like the relationship between our happy band of pilgrims in that Irish cottage, where forty were dancing in a room that should have only accommodated ten, where a new step, a new way of dancing, occurred on the fly and might never be repeated, where all of us felt bound together by camaraderie, shared experience, and love.

The important part of understanding the Trinity is not the theological mechanics of how it works…it is not about which person of the trinity does what or when…it is about the relationship in the dance. Because when you understand that the Trinity is about the dance of God, you also understand that you are always invited to be a part of the dance of God, no matter how bad a dancer you think you are.

It is as Paul says in the final words of his epistle to the Corinthians: “live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you.” Those are words of relationship, not a rule book. Those are not instructions about what foot to put where, they are about dancing with God and with each other, knowing God loves each of us. Those are not orders to follow the models of other dancers in other times and places, they are encouragement to enter into the dance of intertwining with each other in the same creative and unique way we have been made and have lived into ourselves.

Think less about the rules and get up and dance. Don’t worry if you’re doing it right. Just get up and dance, as the three persons of the one God are entwined in the dance. Just get up and dance, and feel all that is God – more than we can understand, more than we can imagine – applauding your dance, even as God enters into your dance as your partner and beloved and friend.

Get up and dance.