Religious Grounds

Java for the journey.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

A Mid-week Sermon on Genesis 22:1-18

A few words about why the text was chosen are in order.
I have chosen to preach this Lent on Biblical texts
which I have never preached upon before –
not because I wanted to avoid them,
but because they have been avoided for me.
For whatever reason,
they either do not appear in the Revised Common Lectionary,
the three-year schedule of Biblical readings which we use,
or they are included in the lectionary at such points
that we usually miss them entirely.

This story about Abraham, Isaac, and God is one such story.
The only times it appears in our lectionary is at the Easter Vigil
and as an option for a Sunday after Pentecost.
Up until about twelve years ago,
this story was prescribed for the first Sunday in Lent every third year.
But when the Revised Common Lectionary was published,
it was replaced by the story of the rainbow and God’s promise to Noah.
I have no idea why this was done.
Perhaps there is an excellent reason for it.
Perhaps it is because sermons are shorter, and one needs a long time
to be able to do full justice to this story.
Perhaps it is because this text can do great harm if mishandled too badly.
But it does not seem accidental that in our time,
when concern for victims is of high importance,
the story about Abraham, Isaac, and God has fallen on hard times.
Indeed, in the Bill Moyers PBS documentary on the book of Genesis,
there were some theologians who flatly stated
that God comes out of this story looking pretty bad.
What kind of God would demand such a sacrifice, they say?
What kind of man would obey?

The story about Abraham, Isaac, and God
begins long before this particular part of the story.
God promises Abraham that his descendants
will be born of his own child, Isaac,
and that through his descendants God will bless the world.
And so just when Isaac, his only son, is at the time of manhood,
God commands Abraham to offer Isaac as a whole burnt-offering to him.

Our natural reasoning recoils at such a demand.
It seems utterly out of character
for the God we grow up hearing is a God of love.
After all, is not this God the same God
who commanded his people not to sacrifice their children to him,
when all the nations around Israel were participating in child sacrifice?
Is not this God the same God who promised that through Isaac
he would fulfill the promise to Abraham?
Is not this God the same God who declares, “You shall not murder?”
and commands that the parent love the child?

And so we quickly make this trial of Abraham’s
into a trial of God.
God himself is on trial here,
if we are calling his past statements into account
and weighing his actions and intentions in the balance.
And yet it is Abraham’s gift to do
what Adam and Eve could not do in the Garden,
what Peter could not do at Caesarea Philippi
or in the courtyard of the high priest,
what we cannot do from our vantage point.
It is faith that is Abraham’s gift,
faith and trust that God does not let one of his words fall to the ground.

In his lectures on the first three chapters of Genesis,
Dietrich Bonhoeffer described the conversation
between Eve and the serpent in the Garden
as “the first theological conversation.”
That is, it was a conversation “about” God rather than “with” God.
When Eve allows herself to consider the question,
“Did God really say?”
she is sitting in judgment upon God’s Word
rather than simply listening to it and doing it.
Bonhoeffer goes on to say,
“Where human beings use a principle, an idea of God,
as a weapon to fight against the concrete word of God…
at that point they have become God’s master,
they have left the path of obedience,
they have withdrawn from being addressed by God.”

Abraham knew that this was no demon masquerading,
suggesting to him a course of action that the real God would never hear of.
Abraham knew that the voice that called him was the voice of God himself.
He had heard that voice too many times to be mistaken.
And so he knows that there is an instant choice to be made.
He may put God’s word on trial, judge it upon its merits,
and accept or reject it accordingly,
or he may obey.
There is no third way.
And so early in the morning,
Abraham gets up and makes ready for the journey to Mt. Moriah.
At every opportunity to turn back from the way of following God’s command,
Abraham goes forward.

There are at least two things we need to be careful to remember.
One is that Abraham never would have chosen this course of action
without an explicit command from God.
Those who justify abuse or neglect of children based upon this text
are justifying their own hatred,
for we have no command from God except to love and nurture our children.
The burden is not laid upon us; it is laid upon Abraham,
who continued loving his son
even while he obeyed God’s command.

But the second thing we need to remember is this:
Abraham continued to believe and trust
the God who had not only demanded the sacrifice of Isaac,
but also who had promised the descendants through Isaac.
In other words, Abraham’s trust was based upon the premise
that God does not lie, even though his ways be inscrutable.
Abraham trusted in God to accomplish his purpose,
and Abraham’s only role was to be faithful.
Hadn’t that been how it happened before with God?
God had been the active agent, God had beyond all hope and imagination
given him the land and the son,
and all Abraham had done is believed and obeyed.

Other than “Here I am,” Abraham only speaks once in this drama,
and his words are the key to his outlook..
On the way to the mountain, Isaac notices that there is no lamb for the sacrifice,
and Abraham says,
“God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”
“God himself will provide.”
On one level, it can be seen as subterfuge,
Abraham’s deliberate deception of his innocent victim, his son.
On one level, it can be seen as hope,
that God will provide the way forward
from a seemingly impossible situation.
“God will provide.”
Has this not been Abraham’s watchword from day one
of his whole impossible adventure with God?
Is not his entire life staked upon this paradoxical hope,
that though God commands the offering,
yet he has also promised the blessing?
Is not his only hope that the same God who brings down raises up,
and that the God who kills makes alive?

This is where Peter falls short at Caesarea Philippi.
When Jesus tells the disciples that the road
he must travel leads to the cross,
the man who has just confessed Jesus to be God’s Son
begins to argue fiercely with God’s Son.
He bases his objection upon what he knows to be true,
that through the Messiah God will bring restoration to the world.
And yet Peter cannot see how God can do this through death,
and cannot put more trust in God than in himself.
He has not yet the faith of Abraham, the faith of Jesus,
that God can make a way where there is no way,
that if Isaac can be bound, he can be set free,
that for God the Red Sea is no obstacle,
that water can come from the rock and manna from heaven,
and that on the third day the stone will be rolled away.

When we ask ourselves “Did God really say?”
is it not a testimony that we do not live by faith in God whom we cannot see
but instead trust in what we can control, what we can understand?
Did God really say, “Love your enemies?”
They have hurt us, it is natural to hate them.
Did God really say, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths?”
But we must vent, we must get sympathy.
Does God really want us to hold ourselves back from what feels right to us
simply because of some nonsensical utterance of Paul?
Did he wish the death of the martyrs?

These are questions which bring God to judgment
and make ourselves the measure of all things.
But we ask for the faith of Abraham, the faith of Jesus,
which says, “God will provide,”
which trusts that God’s Word is God’s Word,
all of it, the commands and the promises,
and that God will, despite everything,
bring light from darkness, life from death,
speech from silence.

Jeremiah 2:12-13

Be appalled, O heavens, at this,
be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord,
for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water,
and dug out cisterns for themselves,
cracked cisterns that can hold no water.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Digital Destiny by Jeff Chester

Summary: Thanks to the gutless FCC, Comcast, etc., will soon own your souls, unless we can organize.
Chief Heroes: mostly anonymous, brave souls
Chief Villains: Newt Gingrich, Michael Powell, Rupert Murdoch, lawyers, politicians, lobbyists
Most frightening idea: that the owners of the cable lines will be able to streamline their own broadband content while everyone else waits in line
Idea that speaks against author's point of view: Chester seems to believe that if we had had a more diverse, free press, everyone in the Muslim world would love us and 9/11 would never have happened.
Best chapters: "Showdown at the FCC," telling the story of the aforementioned Powell's attempt to gut the prohibition on multiple-channel ownership in local areas by media companies, and the response; "The Brandwashing of America," prophesying the future of interactive advertising.
Response: I've always hated my Comcast home page and my AIM Today. They bring me the best of the grocery store checkout celeb mags right to my screen. This book could inspire alliances of the "Crunchy Con" type.


Friday, March 02, 2007

Bible Stories for the Forty Days

Here is the book we are reading as a family for Lent, from Liturgy Training Publications.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

We'll see how this goes...

All right, I have an urge to resume blogging. For today. We'll see how this goes.

But I have nothing to contribute right now - except a sermon. If you like to read sermons, read on. If not, then you are free to check back later.

God bless.

First Sunday in Lent - February 25, 2007

Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13

In the early centuries of the Christian Church,

men and women,

alone and in small groups,

fled the great cities of Northern Egypt

for the desert areas surrounding them.

Often the small groups would form religious communities,

but the most intrepid of them would try to live alone in the desert,

to undertake a radical existence of simplicity and solitude.

We know them today as “the Desert Fathers” and “the Desert Mothers.”

They had an enormous impact on the Church’s history.

They fled the cities at first because of persecution,

but then because of persecution of a different kind.

When the Christian faith was first tolerated, then privileged, in the Roman Empire,

the result was good in some ways, and bad in others.

Good because there was no longer the ultimate price to pay for being a Christian.

and bad for the very same reason.

Pretty soon there was no difference between being a Christian and being a normal citizen.

And that led some people to wonder, shouldn’t there be a difference?

So some people voluntarily chose a life of simplicity and solitude in the desert

in order to follow Jesus more closely.

Perhaps they thought that their temptations to backslide,

to live a life no different than everyone around them,

would disappear once they had left civilization behind,

and were finally alone with God.

What they found was something quite different.

God indeed was in the desert,

but the devil was as well.

They found that temptation was not something that could be left behind so easily,

that it was in fact as close to them in solitude as it was in civilization.

They discovered what Jesus discovered on his forty-day stay in the wilderness.

When Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit “into the wilderness,”

he finds more trouble there then anyone could have expected.

The devil shadows him, closer than his own shadow,

always at his side and in his ear.

Through his forty-day fast, he has nothing to distract him from the insistent crying-out

of his very human, very mortal body.

There is no dissenting voice to shield him from the vision taking shape

of a lonely road that he must walk,

where few will understand him

and few listen to him

and at the end, all will abandon him.

God seems to be silent.

The only voice speaking is the devil’s,

who invites him to a different reality,

a reality in which he is master of his own fate,

captain of his own ship,

in which he need not be hungry,

need not be lonely,

need not be a failure.

All he needs to do is reach out his hand and take what he wants for himself.

Of course, the devil is lying.

“He is a liar and the father of lies” Jesus said at another time,

perhaps remembering his experience in the desert.

No one dances to one’s own tune,

Jesus knows,

but follows a leader – either God or the devil.

And so Jesus rebuffs the advances of the devil,

and listens to God’s voice –

for God has not been silent,

not with the voice of Scripture speaking in Jesus’ heart,

sounding clearly and strongly even above our devil’s attempts

to twist God’s Word in the desert

as once he did in the garden.

Jesus experiences what all human beings experience,

the stark utter choice between dancing to God’s or the devil’s tune,

and alone of all humanity he remains faithful to his Father,

and makes it possible for us to be God’s as well.

For if even one human being resists the satanic call,

then Satan is not Lord of this world, but God is.

And they are saved from the lies of the devil

who, trusting in Christ, confessing his Name,

put faith in what he has done for us in the desert and on the cross

and turn away from trust in their own works, their own righteousness.

Why, then, if Jesus has gone to the desert for us, must we go to the desert,

literally, or metaphorically?

What did the Desert Fathers learn in the desert?

What did Martin Luther learn in the monastery?

What do youth who fast for thirty hours

or adults who give up chocolate for Lent gain from the experience?

Lately there has been a movement I’ve been less than thrilled with.

Rather than “give up” something for Lent,

some say,

it’s much better to “add on” something.

Add on a good deed a day,

or a sponsorship of a child

who needs food and medicine and education,

or a habit you’ve been meaning to acquire, like Bible reading or healthy eating,

instead of giving up something which isn’t going to do anyone any good anyhow.

Now there’s nothing wrong with adding something to your life.

After all, the discipline of Lent is not only fasting,

but fasting, prayer, study, and works of love.

The implication I’m not comfortable with is that this should be done instead of fasting.

And to me this is simply a mistake.

Because if we only add more to our lives, we run the risk of increasing our pride

while fasting reveals our brokenness.

It is to let go of our imagined needs,

to let go of our half-spoken wants and half-dreamed-of desires,

and in the letting go experience just how tied we are to them,

whether to comfort food or comfort media

or to habits long-engrained.

It is to attempt to give more glory to the Creator than to the creation,

and in doing so to know within ourselves how much we want it otherwise.

It is to give up our cherished control over our own existence,

to surrender it to the one who gave us our existence and who will take it back.

And thus the way through temptation

is to acknowledge our dependence, our temptation, our brokenness,

and to call upon the help of Jesus,

who endured temptation for our sake and who emerged victorious.

For when the Fathers emerged from the desert, and Luther from the monastery,

they came confessing their own failures, but Christ’s victories for them and in them.

It might have sounded something like this:

“No strength of ours can match his might;

we would be lost, rejected.

But now a champion comes to fight,

whom God himself elected...

Christ Jesus, mighty Lord,

God’s only Son, adored.

He holds the field victorious.”